Judges' Commentary for 2003
We chose two winning poems that generally hold to the formal structure of renku and also capture its playful collaborative spirit. Both poems, in their own distinctive ways, skillfully touch on a panorama of human experience with tenderness and humor.
The Grand Prize winner is New Coolness, a nijuin (20-link) renku with four authors. The poem as a whole has a stately tone, set at the beginning with the expansive sense of the outdoors on a fine early autumn day. As expected, the first two verses are tightly linked, followed by a shift in location, topic, and point of view in the third verse. After this calm start, shifts become more lively. A freer range of topics, as well as interesting shifts in scale and focus of each verse quickens the pace. Yet because verses all have a kind of contained intensity, reinforced by similarity in rhetoric and syntax, the poem remains contemplative throughout. The treatment of the flower verses is unorthodox. Normally, these verses must refer to cherry blossoms, but the authors chose to use "bright nasturtiums" and "shadows of magnolia blossoms" instead. The effect is interesting, especially in a 20-link poem in English. However, if you were expecting cherry blossom verses with their complex allusive resonance, these verses, though well-integrated in the poem, might be less captivating.
An Honorable Mention is awarded to Open Convertible, a kasen renku with five authors. This poem has a much wider emotional and rhetorical range than the grand prize winner. In addition to the variety of topics, the authors use quotations, questions, and varied syntax (not just statements). This adds liveliness to fast sections and heightened emotional impact to verses that are already in high relief (such as the first flower verse). More than one set of verses are beautifully composed and linked. For example the sequence from verse 23 to 26 is an elegant excursion from winter verses to the beginning of the series of love verses:
23) I make new clothes/for my granddaughter's doll/ Christmas Eve
24) winter mist—her neighbor/must enter a nursing home
25) Marines play ping-pong/an occasional distant/burst of gunfire
26) “that OLD BLACK MAGIC”/with Louis and Keely
However the poem's opening is not handled as skillfully. Topics are repeated (“sunshine” and “clouds”), and the wakiku (2nd verse) is a bit unfocused. Because the opening verses set the tone for the whole renku, these are serious shortcomings. In other sections as well, repeated topics create parallel links that tend to deflate the energy of the poem. We mention this because in our experience, renku benefits from careful editing, both during and after composition, with a view to formal renku rules.
What might at first seem like prescriptions and prohibitions, are more like efficient reminders to record a playful poetic conversation connected not by subject matter, rhetoric, or point of view, but by sensitivity to the feeling and experience that breathes in each verse. The winning poems do approach this ideal, and we congratulate the authors for their success!
—Alice Benedict & Patricia Machmiller, Judges